Bombing ISIS is not a video game
As usual, too many politicians, pundits, and some members of the American public have the attention span of fruit flies, with even less memory. How else to explain the drumbeat to “bomb ISIS to hell”?
President Obama’s nuanced response to a complicated question about strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been described as “inartful.” I’m sure he wishes he could take back the phrase, “We don’t have a strategy,” even sending out communications staff back into the White House press room in a case of “walk back the comment.” Although if you listen to the entire response to the entire question, that’s not what he was saying at all — there are many approaches and strategies, and to decide on one and boil it down to a few words defeats the whole purpose of foreign policy. Nevertheless, those who deal only in soundbites — like most Republican politicians and the Beltway media — jumped all over him.
We hear the usual complaints and condemnations: that Obama is weak; that he spends too much time golfing (show me a president in modern times who didn’t golf); that he’s a “kitty cat” compared to the “Russian bear” of Vladimir Putin.
I especially got a chuckle from a comment by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, trying to impress an audience of Republicans, telling them that Putin wouldn’t dare treat HIM like he’s treating Obama. According to a story in The New York Times, Christie said that Putin “had taken the measure of Mr. Obama. ‘I don’t believe, given who I am, that he would make the same judgment,’ Mr. Christie said. ‘Let’s leave it at that.’ ” Also according to the Times story: “One attendee described Mr. Christie’s answer as disturbingly heavy on swagger and light on substance. Another called it ‘uncomfortable to watch.’ ” What would you do, Governor — cause some traffic problems on the Novospassky Bridge in Moscow?
This is the problem with the soundbite reactions to the problem of the Islamic State that is trying to overrun Iraq and Syria, whether you call it ISIS, IS, ISIL, or whatever. It’s heavy on swagger and light on substance, with absolutely no thought about consequences to the region, the United States, or the world. Pundits on Fox News like Bill Kristol say, “Let’s just bomb them and see what happens!” There’s a thought-out strategy for you! GOP senators like John McCain (R, I never met a war I didn’t like), Lindsay Graham (R, I’m tough — I promise), and Mark Kirk (R, I’ll say whatever is expedient) are all demanding bombing. Gee, if it’s Congress’ job to declare war, why aren’t these senators — not to mention many House members — introducing legislation, with funding, with specific strategies? For that matter, when Obama DID ask Congress to approve action against Syria, Congress refused to take it up. It’s too easy to talk tough and never follow through.
It wasn’t that long ago — spring of 2013 — that John McCain went to Syria to meet with Syrian rebels and “demand” that the Obama administration help rebels. Too bad the rebels he chose happened to be ISIS.
I’ll never get tired of running this photo of McCain chillin’ with his ISIS buddies. Talk about a rush to judgment with no wisdom behind it.
We’ve all heard stories about ISIS atrocities. We’ve heard about kidnappings and killings of Yazidis. We watched the U.S.-trained and -armed Iraqi Army cut and run against ISIS fighters, leaving behind expensive U.S. equipment that ISIS now uses. We’ve received horrific news about the beheadings of two American journalists. The best outcome would have been to rescue the journalists where they were being held in Syria, as a team of U.S. special forces tried to do, but somehow ISIS got wind of the plan and moved the hostages.
So we’re forced to listen to terrorist bravado as the members of the media go into a reporting frenzy about how ISIS “knows how to use social media.” Tip to the Beltway media: Most people under the age of 30 — and many of us over that age — know how to use social media. In case you hadn’t noticed, activists in the region used social media to promote revolutions throughout the region in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere. If you don’t have much money and you don’t have a computer but you have a smartphone, you know how to tweet a video. They do.
So now too many are calling for the “bomb them to hell” strategy. They seem to forget how that worked out before.
Let’s go back to Gulf War in the early 1990s, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush formed a coalition of regional supporters. first as Operation Desert Shield, then Operation Desert Storm. We bombed, and the American public watched the video of the bombings — well, like it was a video game. Indeed, many of the pilots who launched those bombs from their jets described it the same way. We looked at green screens and blips, and saw that targets were hit. And then those pilots flew away. We left, but we hadn’t really changed anything.
Now let’s fast-forward ten years to 2003, when the Bush-Cheney administration lied to the American people and launched another war in Iraq under false pretenses, claiming that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (he didn’t). Saddam had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. We invaded, destabilized the region, and disbanded the Iraqi Army. We spent trillions of U.S. dollars, tanked our own economy, caused nearly 4,500 American troops to lose their lives, and left tens of thousands of members of the U.S. military wounded, maimed, and worse. And in a country where there was no al Qaeda, now we have a regional group of Sunni thugs who are so bad that al Qaeda disowns them. All because the Bush administration had no long-term plan, but wanted to feel good about “doing something.”
You would think that the American public had had enough war in the region. A simplistic poll asks “Should we be doing more against ISIS” and gets a more than 50 percent response of “yes.” But when asked exactly WHAT the U.S. should be doing, all of a sudden, the answers aren’t so clear.
No, the cautious approach of “don’t do stupid stuff” still holds. And going all in on bombing ISIS without regional support of other countries and without a comprehensive, multi-scenario strategy would, indeed, be stupid stuff.
A column by Thomas L. Friedman in The New York Times has the headline “Ready, Aim, Fire. Not Fire, Ready, Aim.” He admits that his 2003 support of the Iraq war was wrong and that we need to think things through before bombing in a frenzied reaction. “We were in a hurry, myself included, to change things after 9/11, and when you’re in a hurry you ignore complexities that come back to haunt you later,” he writes.
It’s going to take time and a lot of effort, diplomacy, and wheedling to make sure that other countries in the region are a part of this fight against ISIS. Anyone who thinks the Obama administration has been sitting back and not coming up with a wide variety of scenarios is living in a Fox News alternate reality.
“I’m all-in on destroying ISIS. It is a sick, destabilizing movement,” Friedman writes. “I support using U.S. air power and special forces to root it out, but only as part of a coalition, where everybody who has a stake in stability there pays their share and where mainstream Sunnis and Shiites take the lead by demonstrating that they hate ISIS more than they hate each other. Otherwise, we’ll end up in the middle of a God-awful mess of duplicitous allies and sectarian passions, and nothing good we do will last.”